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Lester Bangs: A Life in T-Shirts

Lester Bangs may be renowned for his gonzo style of writing, but he was also infamous for his fashion style—or, rather, his conscious decision not to have one. At the 1978 Punk Magazine Awards, held on October 13, Lester accepted his award for "Best Dressed" none too graciously, as a riotously bellicose altercation ensued afterward with Joey Ramone. GQ was not Lester's thang, nor was the contrived punk drag of safety-pins, trash bags, gashed sleeveless shirts, and Lou Reed skinny-jeans. Whenever a business-casual look was needed, Lester usually donned a Leicester plaid shirt (who knows if the Leicester/Lester homonym means anything) and a rumpled pair of chinos. Otherwise, one came to expect the noisome Bangsian uniform of torn jeans, short-waisted leather jacket, and a musky tee-shirt.
Those tee-shirts, however, were often part and parcel with his identity as a critic, and they often advertised his musical allegiances. This section offers a lighthearted look at Lester Bangs's rock couture, a kind of "September Issue" for the Lester Bangs Archive.
  • McKendree Spring, "Spring Suite"
    McKendree Spring, "Spring Suite"

    T-shirt promoting 1973 album Spring Suite (MCA 370) from the avant-garde / progressive folk rock group McKendree Spring; members (on this album): Fran McKendree, vocals and guitar; Christopher Bishop, bass; Dr. Michael Dreyfuss, electric violin, viola, Moog, Arp, Mellotron; Martin Slutsky, electric guitar. Bangs photo copyright 1980, Charles T. Auringer. Bangs doesn't seem to express any strong opinion about McKendree Spring or Spring Suite. His scathing review of It's A Beautiful Day's self-titled debut album was published in the same issue of Rolling Stone (26 July 1969) as someone else's review of McKendree Spring, but he doesn't seem to have authored any review of the band or this album, himself. One wonders, then, what attracted him to a free t-shirt promoting the Spring Suite album? You're "free" to speculate.

  • "Punk Magazine"
    "Punk Magazine"

    This t-shirt featuring the logo of Punk Magazine, launched in 1975 by Ged Dunn, John Holmstrom, and Legs McNeil, is still in production today for its iconic appeal. Bangs had unofficial involvement in the magazine and was featured in a comic-book style "fight to the death" with wrestler Dick Manitoba (issue no. 4, 1976). The magazine showcased Bangs's nemesis/idol Lou Reed on the cover of its first issue.

  • Janis Ian, "Aftertones"
    Janis Ian, "Aftertones"

    One of Lester's faves, Janis Ian's promo t-shirt for her 1975 album Aftertones is featured prominently in more than a few snapshots of the rock journalist—a favorite among some fans being the 1978 image of Bangs seated on the couch in his messy New York apartment, directly beneath a poster for the Undertones. Photo credit: Christina Patoski, 1981.

  • "Detroit Sucks"
    "Detroit Sucks"

    The origins of the "Detroit sucks!" battle-cry are speculated by some to be Chicago Blackhawks hockey fans, and by others to be a 1960s campaign begun in Detroit, itself. Working at Creem, in Birmingham, Michigan (just outside of Detroit), Bangs soon grew to revile Detroit as much as he loved it, and eventually joined the "Detroit sucks!" campaign with his own t-shirt. The phrase has since become a popular component of the Lester Bangs mythology: playing Lester Bangs, Philip Seymour Hoffman wears the "Detroit Sucks" t-shirt in one of the scenes from Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. Bangs photo: 1975. Philip Seymour Hoffman photo, 2000.

  • The Guess Who
    The Guess Who

    During his 1973 Christmas visit to San Diego, Bangs received an interview invitation from freeform rock radio station KPRI (102.1 FM). Budding rock journalist Cameron Crowe, who, like Bangs, had published early work in the alternative San Diego Door, waited for Lester as he exited the station on the corner of 7th and Ash. It was an inspiring moment for Crowe, who went on to immortalize the experience in a stand-alone scene in his hit film, Almost Famous, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs. Cameron remained faithful to his memory of the event, costuming Hoffman in scruffy jeans and a “Guess Who” t-shirt. Philip Seymour Hoffman photo, 2000.

  • Peaches Records
    Peaches Records

    They go together like— Peaches and CREEM?! Peaches Records & Tapes is an indie New Orleans based music seller established in 1975, often confused with the L.A. based Lishon's franchise, not only because it, too, named itself "Peaches Records and Tapes" in 1976, but because their logos looked so similar as to rouse suspicions of plagiarism. When the New Orleans Peaches expanded its franchise, Peaches/Lishon's brought a "Cease and Desist" order against their use of the name and logo. The L.A. franchise, however, did not win out in the end: it filed for bankruptcy in 1981 and sold its rights to the name to the New Orleans franchise. In this close-up of a 1975 group photo with Creem colleague Jaan Uhelszki's family, Lester is wearing the New Orleans "Peaches" logo, not the Lishon's logo; the 1975 date also coincides with the opening of the Louisiana store. Five years later, Bangs and long-time friend Michael Ochs would actually take a road-trip to New Orleans; it seems highly likely they would have visited the Peaches headquarters (now on N. Peters Street), so that Lester could at least pick up a clean shirt.

  • "Ripley's Believe It Or Not!"
    "Ripley's Believe It Or Not!"

    Believe it or not, Lester was a hardcore comics enthusiast, especially the comics of R. Crumb, who was responsible for Creem's "Boy Howdy!" logo. In fact, Lester often exited record and bookstores with albums, rock magazines and comic books all in the same bag. The occult became a favorite subject for Lester during his teen years, so it's not farfetched that he would perform at CBGB's in a "Ripley's Believe It Or Not!" t-shirt, as shown in this 1977 photo by Bob Gruen. While Robert Ripley parlayed the "Believe It Or Not" concept into a multi-million dollar entertainment empire of comic books, TV programs, novelty publications, traveling shows, and museums, Ripley's t-shirts, believe it or not, weren't widely available; Bangs, then, is either wearing a limited edition Ripley's shirt (perhaps acquired at a comics convention) or a custom transfer job from one of the many shopping mall t-shirt shops that were trending during the 1970s. If you think you know the source of Lester's t-shirt image, please e-mail us. Believe it or not, we'd appreciate hearing from you.

  • Abba

    Lester Bangs's staunch, if not unexpected, defense of Swedish pop group Abba, was just one of Lester's quirks. He was bellicosely critical of pop groups whose sound was a little too "perfect" and sanitized, but his loyalty to Abba over the years—a group whose music many would describe as "over-produced"—was not only strangely incongruous, some of his most iconic photos prominently feature his favorite Abba t-shirt. In fact, in one of the promo photos shot by Roberta Bailey for the Birdland album and posters, the Abba logo is clearly visible beneath Bangs's sport coat, as if he were using the photo op to proclaim his Abba allegiance publicly. The photo of Bangs shown here was captured in 1977, in Detroit. In it, Lester appears to be sticking out his tongue at Abba haters as he strikes a "Sacred Heart" pose found in Christian iconography. Was Abba the inviolate "heart" of his rock religion?

  • Norman Mailer homage
    Norman Mailer homage

    Perhaps one of the most misunderstood and controversial of Lester's t-shirts, the slogan many assumed to be racist, "Last of the white n*ggers," was actually an allusion to Norman Mailer's beat-era essay, "The White Negro." Bangs was, in fact, very sensitive and defensive about racial issues. Even in grade school, he considered African-American jazz artists like Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk to be his "saints." He also penned a scathing exposé, "White Noise Supremacists" (The Village Voice, 1979), critical of the racism he identified among the lyrics and performers of burgeoning punk movement. Some of his cohorts have since suggested that Bangs wrote the article as an apology for his reckless use of the "N" word. The t-shirt can be purchased today featuring a humorous post-postmodern redaction of the slogan, using just the visible letters from Bangs's iconic 1975 photo shot by Kate Simon in William S. Burroughs's apartment building (pejoratively referred to as "The Bunker").

  • The Carpenters
    The Carpenters

    Another of his "dirty little secrets," The Carpenters held a special place in Lester Bangs's heart, not unlike Swedish pop group, Abba. Even though they were unapologetically commercial and slickly produced, with no musical "edge" to speak of, Bangs forgave them all their wholesomeness. Even in his ambivalent reviews of their work, he was wont to declare his crazy, mixed-up love for the sibling pop duo. Ironically, there aren't any photos available showing Lester wearing his favorite Carpenters tee, but friends and acquaintances recall him in it with his fetid jeans and sneakers—a malodorous ensemble some of his cohorts have described as nearly verging on molysmophilia (a fetishistic attraction to filth and soiled clothing).

  • Jefferson Starship "Spitfire"
    Jefferson Starship "Spitfire"

    This Jefferson Starship t-shirt was issued to promote their 1976 Spitfire album. Lester Bangs admitted his review of the album for the March 1977 issue of Creem Magazine was the worst thing he ever wrote. In fact, he felt so embarrassed about it that he apologized to his readers in the next issue. The Spitfire review would be his last article for Creem Magazine; soon after he would join The Village Voice in New York. Whether out of penitence or convenience, Bangs continued to wear a Jefferson Starship t-shirt long afterward: in one of the last photos of Norma Bangs, Lester is at her side contritely wearing a "slick" Spitfire promo shirt. The photo was taken in 1980, just two years before both their deaths.

  • "Freedom or Death"
    "Freedom or Death"

    "Freedom or Death," a slogan many mistake as originating with Lester Bangs, was actually not a Bangs quotation at all but, rather, an artistic philosophy he professed on poly-cotton blend. For Lester, "Freedom or Death" meant rock 'n' roll's most basic tenet: the sanctity of honest and free expression. Early on, Bangs was fired from Rolling Stone Magazine for the candid "disrespect" for musicians he showed in his reviews, particularly during a time when the magazine's producers were beginning to invest in rock acts and expected their rock journalists to be willing propagandists. (Bangs, of course, was not tempted.) "Freedom or Death" also served as a political motto at a time when social movements were beginning to overturn old oppressions. It's understandable why the appeal of the slogan would endure for subsequent generations. Photo of Lester by Bob Gruen taken at CBGBs in June, 1977.

  • Thelonious Monk / Eric Dolphy
    Thelonious Monk / Eric Dolphy

    There’s a lot of debate about which jazz idol is on Lester’s shirt. Candidates include Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Sphere Monk. The t-shirt silhouette bears a marked resemblance to an iconic profile of Monk, but Thelonious Monk’s 1963 live album of his performance at New York's Birdland jazz club would have also made an especially suitable allusion for Lester’s 1979 Birdland performance at New York’s CBGBs, where this t-shirt was worn. Another practical contender for the silhouette, though, is sax virtuoso Eric Dolphy, whose album, The Berlin Concerts, had just been reviewed by Bangs in the December 14, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine. The Berlin Concerts were among the very last recordings of Dolphy, who died in Berlin on June 29, 1964. Dolphy was a highly respected contemporary to Mingus and Monk, and even John Coltrane paid tribute to him—further reasons that Lester would have considered Dolphy one of his jazz apostles. At the 1974 Buffalo State College's "Rock Critics Symposium," Lester referenced Dolphy in answer to one of the audience member's questions: “Rock ’n’ roll is the American art form,” Bangs declared. “Eric Dolphy once said that music came out of his breath, went through the saxophone, and it was gone. It’s true; it’s evanescent. It’s here and then it’s gone, and you can never capture it again!” Profiles of Monk and Dolphy are included here alongside Lester’s shirt. You be the judge.

  • John Miles
    John Miles

    Singer-songwriter and guitarist John Miles, who was once in a band with Roxy Music drummer Paul Thompson before starting a distinguished solo career in 1971, must have seemed a fitting model for Lester to launch his own solo career with his recent single, "Let It Blurt." Miles released four albums during the 1970s, the most successful of which in the U.S. was his debut album Rebel (1976): his 1977 single, "Slow Down," is considered a U.S. one-hit wonder. The circa 1978 John Miles t-shirt shown with a playfully scowling Lester Bangs in this 1980 photo by JoAnne Uhelszki promotes Miles on London Records and Tapes, the UK branch of Decca.

  • The Ramones
    The Ramones

    This Ramones insignia was used by the group between 1975 and 1981, and was designed as a parody of the U.S. Presidential seal. Bangs, of course, worked closely with Joey Ramone's brother, Mickey Leigh, as Birdland's co-creator, lyricist and songwriter. The circa 1978 t-shirt must have been one of Bangs's favorites, as he and members of The Delinquents were photographed on more than several occasions wearing it. In fact, Bangs almost seems to be advertising the punk group in his 1980 Austin, Texas arrest mug-shots. The photo here was taken in Austin, in 1980.

  • "Hair," the movie musical
    "Hair," the movie musical

    The 1979 movie musical Hair was adapted from the successful Off-Broadway and Broadway run of the counter-culture stage musical of the same name, written by Galt MacDermot, James Rado and Gerome Ragni. Milos Foreman adapted the play to film in 1979, casting Treat Williams, Beverly d'Angelo, and John Savage; the film's soundtrack (not the Broadway musical's) was released on the RCA label the same year. The images here are a testament to a campaign of promotion that successfully launched the film and its soundtrack. Bangs, shown here looking not quite himself, is wearing a t-shirt promoting the Hair soundtrack, during a recuperative stay at therapist and friend Phil Sapienza's New York estate in 1979.

  • Capricorn Records barbecue
    Capricorn Records barbecue

    This 1975 photo of Lester Bangs was taken by publicist Mike Hyland at a Capricorn Records barbecue in Macon, Georgia. In it, Bangs is wearing a three-quarter sleeve baseball tee illustrated with, either, a hitchhiker's thumb or an outstretched hand. The full-color illustration at right is a facsimile approximated from the photo, but the shirt's actual origins are unknown. In an industry where the pay was nominal, the annual Capricorn barbecue was one of many soirees where Lester and cohorts eagerly enjoyed their "free ride" while hobnobbing with celebrity actors and musicians.

  • Renaissance

    Renaissance were an progressive rock band from the UK, remembered most for their 1978 UK hit "Northern Lights" as well as songs like "Ashes Are Burning." The band was formed in 1969 by former Yardbirds Jim McCarty and Keith Relf as an experimentation in classical, avant-garde and folk rock. They launched a marginally successfully U.S. tour in 1970, touring with bands like The Kinks. Bangs published a short review of Renaissance in the May 14, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine. The band fell apart the next year and regrouped under manager Miles Copeland, who cultivated the success of the band's albums over the next nine years largely by replacing musicians. By 1980, the band's sound had crossed over into synth rock, something Lester Bangs would have had a strong opinion about. In this 1977 photo taken somewhere in the East Village by Bobby Grossman, Bangs is shown here with what seems to be a mid 70s Renaissance t-shirt, possibly promoting the 1976 double album, Live At Carnegie Hall; in the full-size photo, he is joined by filmmaker/fellow smoker Mary Harron.

  • Bird Is the Word
    Bird Is the Word

    "Bird" is definitely the word Lester Bangs is wearing in this close-up of a 1978 photo by Bob Gruen. However, what it references—a pigeon on skates or a surfboard—is definitely not definite. "Legless Bird," a song written by Bangs and the Delinquents for the 1981 album Jook Savages On the Brazos, was allegedly inspired by the 1963 Trashmen hit, "Surfin' Bird," suggesting that Lester was not only a fan of the song, but also would have been keenly watchful of his peers' covers of it. For that reason, this t-shirt could be merely a one-off print job for the 1977 Ramones cover or the 1978 cover by The Cramps. The date of the Gruen photo coincides with the release of The Cramps cover of "Surfin' Bird," but the design, itself, is not typical of The Cramps' creep-show artwork. Given Lester's San Diego origins, however, this might even be a surf shop t-shirt worn in honor of "Surfin' Bird" (though Bangs was by no means ever a surfer). So far, nothing more definitive has turned up in the research.

  • Idi Amin For President
    Idi Amin For President

    Blondie's Chris Stein took a popular 1977 Coney Island Beach photo in which a statuesque Lester, ready to perform in John Holstrom's "Mutant Monster Beach Party" as a biker villain, stands comically juxtaposed to beach-goers in swim trunks and bikinis. Another still image taken by Roberta Bayley for the 1978 Punk magazine photodrama shows Lester wearing the same t-shirt in a barroom scene, and revealed only a few more letters hidden by Lester's jacket in the Chris Stein photo. However, thanks to a rare, rare photocopy of a Ork Records promo typescript, "I Used To Be A Sailor Bangs Declaims," the true message of Lester's t-shirt can now finally be ascertained: "IDI AMIN FOR PRESIDENT"! In the announcement of his debut CBGB's performance, Bang's jokingly stated he hoped to make a name for himself as the "Idi Amin Dada" of punk rock on the Lower East Side. During the mid 1970s, Bangs made several attempts to reach the dictator by long distance and eventually did successfully interview him by telephone in 1975. Amin was the frequent butt of jokes at that time. In 1971, one week after staging a military coup with promises of a democratically decided election to restore leadership, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada appointed himself as president and remained in power until 1979, when the Uganda National Liberation Army drove him into exile in Saudi Arabia (where Amin remained until his death in 2003). In addition to Japhet Kotto's depiction of Amin in the 1977 film Raid On Entebbe, Garrett Morris's lampooning of the despot on Saturday Night Live and Lester Bangs's satirical t-shirt slogan illustrate just how much General Idi Amin Dada was part of the Zeitgeist during the Seventies.

  • 1969 Guitars
    1969 Guitars

    It's a little difficult to tell from the oblique angle in this 1976 photo taken by John Collier, but given the setting in the Creem offices and Creem's alliance with 1969 Guitars, it's possible that Lester is wearing a t-shirt bearing the 1969 insignia crest. Several versions were created, including a "Boy Howdy" version and a "Punk" version. The version shown here comes closest to the details and proportions of the image on Lester's t-shirt, but it's possible that another version altogether appears in the photo—or that the t-shirt in the photo has nothing to do with 1969 Guitars. Some passing resemblance to the Bachman Turner Overdrive insignia and the winged REO Speedwagon insignia should also be noted, though these are not perfect matches either. If you have any clearer insight into what's on Lester's shirt in this photo, please drop a hint to the Lester Bangs Archive management.

  • The Hues Corporation
    The Hues Corporation

    Lester may be stylin' in this 1973 RCA promo t-shirt for The Hues Corporation, but it's hard to dismiss the fashion felony of wearing a floral shirt with it—especially at a New Year's Eve party! Hues Corporation formed in 1969 as an L.A. based black vocal group, with members Hubert Ann Kelly, Bernard St. Clair Lee, and Fleming Williams. The name of their group was a colorful twist on the corporation owned by germa-phobic billionaire Howard Hughes. "Rock the Boat" was their first mega-hit in 1974 on the RCA Victor label, and came to set the hustle-rhythm style for mid-70s disco funk. Later, "Rock the Boat" became one of the targets in Chicago DJ's Steve Dahl's largely homophobic and racist "Disco Sucks" campaign, of which Bangs was, both, cognizant and critical. In "Bye-Bye, Sydney," an memoir about Syd Vicious's death (rejected by New York Rocker but later published in Throat Culture #2, 1990), Bangs wrote "…those disco creeps, whom American punks have all written off with the homophobic slogan 'Disco Sucks,' have come up at times with material far more affirmative on the basic humanistic level than most anything punk has had to show for itself.” Bangs image by acclaimed street photographer Leanne Staples, December 31, 1976.

  •  RCA Victor
    RCA Victor

    In this mid 1970s photos by Charlie Auringer, Bangs is seated on the grass at a WABX barbecue wearing one of his whitest, cleanest t-shirts ever: a stylish number trimmed in contrasting color along the sleeves and neck, and exuberantly showcasing the well loved "His Master's Voice" image used for the RCA Victor logo. Tres chic! Not only was the Detroit-based progressive rock station's annual barbecue (for employees and special guests) the sort of food-and-drink freebie Lester rarely passed up, he respected WABX's free-form approach enough to guest DJ for them. The station, like Lester, himself, was no dog listening to its master's voice. This is why Lester's apparel might have been selected to honor WABX's more liberal "underground" attitude. In 1975, Lester interviewed the program director of another local Top 40s radio station. The interview was a revelation to him: the customary role of a Top 40s DJ, he learned, had "no function other than to play what he’s told to play. Then he was telling me about how he decided all these things—what could and what could not be played on the radio. And I said, 'Wait a second! You're telling me that if I was a DJ here... I could play "Walk on the Wild Side" but I couldn't play something off the 2nd Velvet Underground album?' And he said, ‘That’s right.'  I mean, this is the attitude, and I suppose it makes sense if more people will tune in if you play only what they are totally used to hearing,...but, on another level, it’s gotta be unhealthy in terms of music scene or a musical culture at large in general" (Source: 1980 Interview with Sue Matthews). Detroit WABX closed its operations in 1984, and the station that has since replaced it, WYCD, is now Detroit's only country music station.

  • Destroy All Monsters
    Destroy All Monsters

    In this video still from a 1981 "FM-TV" interview, Lester Bangs (then writing for the "Village Voice") is modeling a Destroy All Monsters ”Bored" tee-shirt. DAM was a successful Detroit-based proto noise band whose sound Lester Bangs favorably reviewed in "CREEM" as “a raw, yet precise sonic attack.” The group formed in 1974 at the University of Michigan and in its heyday included Mike Davis of MC5 and Ron Asheton of The Stooges. On lead vocals was the mononymously named Niagara, whose face graces the sleeve of the 1979 "Bored" 7-inch single, "Bored," DAM's first official release. In a 2014 interview with Byron Coley heralding the release of a DAM compilation, Niagara recalls how Lester Bangs telephoned her to say he'd spent the night listening to the “Bored” single: “He was a little obsessed with the song and had written about 12 more stanzas. Which he read and then sent to me. They really stunk. But we became friends and Ronnie and I visited him in NY. When I saw the Neanderthal look of Lester's apartment and his ‘housekeeping style’ I started calling him ‘Lestoil,’ which was a nickname that stuck.” Lester clearly had respect for DAM, which never quite achieved the same notoriety as bands like The Stooges. However, the "Bored" tee-shirt may also have been integral to Lester's commentary, which pulled no punches about his disgust with Beatlemania and his boredom with rock nostalgia. One final note of forced irony: the B-side of the “Bored” single was called, “You're Gonna Die.” This "FM-TV" interview was one of Lester's last on-camera appearances: he died at the end of April the next year.

Note: The Grossmont College Lester Bangs Archive is not a commercial website, and does not sell, trade, consign, or offer the images or the t-shirts on this page. Images catalogued on this page are for educational purposes only. All pictures are the property and copyright of their respective owners, unless otherwise indicated. Where available, image copyright and source links have been provided for the purposes of bibliographic accuracy.
Last Updated: 10/01/2018
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